By Jim Kates '67
An essay by Jim Kates '67 on volunteering in Mississippi after his first year at Wesleyan. This year is the 50th anniversary of what is now called Freedom Summer. The following is the first essay; the second essay will be published on Wesconnect next week:
There is a photograph taken in June 1964. I am nineteen years old, standing with my back to a bus in Oxford, Ohio, my right arm crossed over my left, my right hand held by a black man my age, my left by a white woman. We are singing "We Shall Overcome" with our whole heart. A photographer named Steve Shapiro snapped it originally for Life Magazine, and the photograph is owned by a commercial archive. It has become, like photographs of a napalmed Vietnamese child and a screaming college student at Kent State, an emblem of an age, a representative image of a time, and of an event that has passed not only into history, but also into a kind of mythic space.
The first time I came across the picture, on the dust jacket of Doug McAdams' Freedom Summer, I saw it the way almost everyone else does. I recognized the scene (and knew I'd been there) but didn't see myself in it. It took a second look, an almost tactile recall of the roll of a shirt sleeve and the way the wristwatch turned inward on the right wrist for me to recognize myself. And the picture has forced me to accept my own place in it, not as a named figure with a rounded life and children of my own, the whole personality I think myself to be, but, more humbly, as a tiny, anonymous (but not inconsequential) part of something much larger and grander — a generation, an idea, a hope, a universe.
So it's not really a photograph of me. I just happened to be in the range of a camera that was recording — on speculation — something that later came to be called history. The day after that photo was taken, three of my colleagues were dead. And year after year I trot myself out, like the picture, as a living exhibit of history in classrooms and lecture halls. I connect the events of 1964 with the events of today as best I can. Every year I get a little older, my perspective deepens, and every year that nineteen- year old boy keeps singing "We Shall Overcome" with my whole heart.
I am proud of the boy in that picture. What I'm most proud of about him is what makes him different from the running Vietnamese child and the college girl whose arms are flung out over a corpse — he is not a victim of his times, but an agent of them. He did not wait to have things happen to him, but he did what he could to make things happen, and he is memorialized forever in that posture, hoping with my whole heart and an open mouth that "We Shall Overcome." I have put a copy of that picture in my daughter's memory box and labeled it "Papa," not merely out of pride in the boy who is now her father. It is also in the hope that it will help to inspire her to make her place in the world, so that if she ever gets snapped by chance into an emblematic image of her age, it will be not for weeping in pain, but for singing the hope of her own acts.
That summer of 1964 began for me on Broadway, at a production of Hamlet directed by John Gielgud and starring Richard Burton. The same night, I boarded a Greyhound bus for Columbus, Ohio, on my way to a training session at Western College for Women (now absorbed into Miami University) for the Mississippi Summer Project. Let Hamlet stand in for the world I left when I entered rural, poverty-stricken, segregated Mississippi. It was a sophisticated, literate New York I had come to know by heart, a theatre district I haunted in every spare moment during my high-school years, and to which I would return, irrevocably changed. I hadn't planned on going to Mississippi that summer. My original plans were to take the most junior part in a repertory company planning summer theatre on Nantucket. But those plans fell apart at the end of winter, just when the idea of joining the summer project became interesting.
The civil rights movement in Mississippi had first been brought home to me a year earlier, when I was a high-school senior in White Plains, New York. In March 1963, a former high-school schoolmate — Dave Gelfand, then a freshman at Brandeis — got in touch with a friend of mine, Peter Sandman, saying he was going to drive to Greenwood in a station wagon in a week and a half, and could we please assemble some food and clothing for him to take with him. He sent us some information, including copies of The Student Voice, the propaganda newsletter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, telling the story of sharecroppers expelled from their plantations for trying to register to vote, and of a SNCC civil rights worker, Jimmie Travis, who had been shot by white vigilantes trying to frighten the civil-rights "movement" out of Mississippi. All of it was reasonably new to me. Names like Fannie Lou Hamer's and Jimmie Travis's meant nothing, although I had met John Howard Griffin, the author of Black Like Me, and P.D. East, the editor of The Petal Paper, in my own living room. Peter and I didn't think we could do much — we had a busy week ahead, and our school was in in the middle of its own clothing drive for poor people in Kentucky. But Peter went off to a high-school journalists' conference at Columbia, where he met someone who offered us the use of the mimeograph machine of a long-standing left-wing beehive at 5 Beekman Street. I happened to be in the city that weekend, too, and we got together at my father's apartment over a bottle of chianti, whipped up a propaganda leaflet, borrowed money from still another friend who had come into the City to do research at the Public Library, printed it up, took it back to White Plains, gathered ten of our classmates at my house, divided the city into ten districts, and — by the end of a week of mobilizing more than 200 others to help us canvass the county — filled the Gelfands' two-car garage with donated food and clothing. SNCC arranged for a truck to haul it all down to Mississippi. I went back to my studies, and to summer school in Maine after graduation. During the famous March in Washington, I was hitchhiking with another friend through eastern Canada.
Now, as a freshman at Wesleyan University, I applied for the summer project that has since entered American historical mythology as "Freedom Summer." I was called before a committee for an interview, and they rejected my application. (Not until decades later was I able to color in this picture: that I hadn't been political enough for the Allard Lowenstein contingent trying to control the summer project, and it was Lowenstein's Yale people controlling my interview.) But I wasn't prepared to stop there. The New York leftist literary critic Max Geismar was a friend of my family, and I called on him to try to get me accepted. He succeeded.
Because I was under twenty-one, I needed parental permission to go to Mississippi. I hadn't told either of my parents of my application. I hitchhiked the well-worn route down to White Plains from Wesleyan, and brought the form to my mother.
"I don't want you to go," she said, "but I can't stop you."
"Of course you can stop me," I said. "If you don't sign, I can't go."
"No," she said. "I mean, the way I raised you, I can't stop you."
Sometime that spring, I attended a meeting at Riverside Church in New York City. I have no idea who else was there — I knew no one — but it was a kind of pre-orientation orientation. I recall now only that someone — it must have been a SNCC field secretary — said that he was not talking about the possibility that one of us might be killed, but the probability that more than one of us would. (This statement becomes important in the light of accusations that we were naive innocents led to our slaughter by cynical SNCC staffers looking for martyrs. If anything, we were over-warned.)
And so I went to Hamlet. Burton mouthed his lines like mashed potatoes. Then I boarded the bus at midnight.
In Columbus, a car from Western College met me. I carried a typewriter, a backpack, and a hundred dollars in cash. What I remember of Columbus was that it seemed to be filled with barbers' colleges. Of Oxford itself and of the college, I remember almost as little, except that it was very green. I must have had at least one roommate, I don't recall his name or face.
The loneliness I felt in Oxford was the loneliness I brought with me. I was a white boy who loved Shakespeare and opera, who didn't drive a car, who had grown up hero- worshiping Robert E. Lee, and who had, seven years earlier, taken a one-week car-trip with his father visiting the shrines of the Confederacy. I felt I had very little in common with all the others milling around the Western College campus. Some of these were the children of Midwestern Protestant clergy, others were "Red Diaper" babies or older, political-science types from Stanford and Yale. The experience of those two weeks of intense training and a common political goal bound me to these strangers, but, with no more than one or two exceptions, the bonding went no deeper than the experience.
For reasons both personal and political, I was not particularly indulgent of my own feelings during the orientation. The letters I wrote back to White Plains were composed mostly with the intent of explaining and supporting our activities. These letters (and my later ones from Mississippi, in 1964 and 1965) were mimeographed by my mother and distributed to a list of people, including the editor of the local newspaper, who reprinted them as they came in. Later, they became the nucleus of a collection of letters from more than one hundred fifty of the volunteers, published in 1965 as Letters from Mississippi. (The book has been reprinted by Zephyr Press.)
When the assignments were made to the different projects, I was slotted for the project centered in Vicksburg. Uncomfortable with the director of that project, I signed up for the project farther south, the Third Congressional District, which was considered the most dangerous place to work, and therefore took only those who selected themselves from within the general group of volunteers. I did this after talking with the one person I had become most friendly with in Oxford — Jimmie Travis. (There is an irony here. The year before, working on the leaflet over that bottle of chianti in New York City, I had read the account of Jimmie's shooting and had said to Peter, "I'll do everything I can up here, but I'll be goddamned if you catch me going down there!") The only other person I remember being friendly with was a Western College student who hung around the training, Mary Volk. David Gelfand was a volunteer, but we were never close friends. Two other Wesleyan classmates trained that week. I liked and respected John Suter, but didn't know him very well except as someone who liked Gershwin and Wagner. For nearly half a century, I forgot that Joe Smith had also been in our group; he reminded me at our fortieth college reunion. In general, I continued to feel pretty much alone.
And then into the second week. While most of the volunteers went to their projects, those of us who had volunteered for the Southwest were held back by Bob Moses, ostensibly for more training, but mostly because he was reluctant to send us into what was considered the most volatile and dangerous part of Mississippi. Several of us in that contingent decided to make a quick trip to Washington, D.C., to lobby Congress and to raise our visibility in the national press. "The first group left Oxford, Ohio, last Saturday and entered the state without incident," I wrote in a letter dated June 25 but written both before and after the excursion to Washington. "The entire state is now being worked except for the southwest. Bob felt it wise to hold us back until the reactions in the rest of the state were known. We decided to use our time in a two-day intensive lobby of Washington, and on Monday and Tuesday we stormed congressional and senatorial offices. Tuesday morning we met with John Doar and Burke Marshall of the Justice Department and presented our demands: Enforcement of sections 241, 242 of Title 18 of the Criminal Code; federal marshals with every project; and out-of-state F. B. I. investigators to be used in civil rights cases. We were generally — and rudely — refused. Tuesday afternoon we held a press conference..."
Volunteer Steve Bingham had appointed himself our spokesman at the press conference, because his grandfather (I think) was a representative. But it was Len Edwards' father, Congressman Don Edwards, who gave us his office and his staff for that occasion. (I don't remember Len being with us, but he might have been.) One of the other volunteers, Mario Savio, spoke with a distinct stutter. But, at the press conference, when Bingham was pontificating in a particular windbaggy, self- important way, Mario grabbed the microphone from him and delivered an eloquent, fluent speech, the gist of which drew a connection between economic interests in the North and southern politics, in which he claimed that Harvard University owned a controlling interest in Mississippi Power and Light and could, if it used its influence, bring segregation down. In retrospect, this was a foreshadowing of Mario's taking over the microphone at Sproul Hall the following October, raising an impatient, articulate radical voice against the liberal Establishment wing of what was, for us, the White Power Structure.
"... and drove back to Oxford that night. We arrived on Wednesday to a particularly tense campus: The second orientation people were shocked by the developments in Philadelphia and seemed more naive than the group the week before.
"That afternoon we conferred with Bob, and decided to move out with this group into training areas in Mississippi before going into the southwest. Natchez people will work in Columbus for a while, McComb people in Holly Springs, and Amite (pronounced ay-MITT) people in Holmes County. Before we get into our own areas, we intend to give ourselves extensive and intensive survival training..."
Funny how memory works: Before I re-read this letter, it was stuck in my memory that we made our D. C. dash because of the disappearance of our colleagues James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and fellow volunteer Andrew Goodman. But the letter implies that we had made this decision before what had happened to them was generally known — they were last heard from on Sunday — and it explains why I have no direct memory of hearing the news of their fate at Oxford: I wasn't there when the news sank in. But, when we came back, there was already no assumption other than that the three were dead.
Bob begged us to reconsider our own commitment. In the midst of one long "soul-session" discussion, he sent us away for hours to rethink for ourselves what we were getting into. Certainly I was afraid (most concretely, not of death, which was as abstract to my nineteen-year old understanding as any other concept; nor of pain — because our training had already taught me the distinction between pain and injury — but of castration) and yet I remember thinking quite consciously that, having made one commitment — to join the Mississippi project in the first place — there was no reason to qualify or trim that commitment. I think only one of us backed out, but, in the end, very few of us got to the southwest in 1964. From Holly Springs I was seconded to the Panola County project, which needed people because of its special status under a federal court order.
What's missing from this account is the high rhetoric of racial justice and Freedom Now. While I was sensible of the politics and the responsibility that brought me into the Summer Project, I learned the rhetoric in Oxford along with nonviolence training, the role-playing, the socio-political and anthropological studies and the music that were thrown at us twenty-four hours a day and that were so crucial in binding white and black strangers into a Movement. But these have been written about eloquently, and can be heard and seen in documentaries and the more general historical record. If I had to specify, though, what I learned most during those intensive two weeks, it was one skill taught as part of the training in door-to-door canvassing. I learned how to listen.
In September 2004, I returned to Oxford for a conference of civil-rights veterans and scholars. There, I discovered how much we had become History. On the campus of what was once the Western College for Women, the State of Ohio has erected a roadside- type plaque, and Miami University itself has constructed a small outdoor amphitheatre to commemorate our training. It is hard to be considered, even sat on, as a monument, to be remembered as a stone slab while you're still alive and screaming. Students who were detailed to shepherd us around and cater to our needs — kids the same age I had been in 1964 — were either ignorantly bemused by our presence or awed by our paunchy connection to the contents of their textbooks. Some had researched archives and led us on a guided tour of a week or two out of our own earlier lives. It took almost as much effort to get them to talk about themselves, their aspirations and those for our shared country as it had been four decades earlier to earn the trust of Mississippi sharecroppers, but the exercise proved to be the best part of the return.
For the rest, it was intriguing to realize that I was not alone in the limitations of my memory. "This is the dining room," the student guide announced, and we looked at one another with surprise. While all of us had vivid memories of our college dining facilities, none of us could remember a single meal taken on the Oxford campus. Far more vivid were the spaces in which we had learned Mississippi politics and the techniques of nonviolent protection, where we had debated the uses and efficacy of guns or ballots, and where we had sung those freedom songs that expressed our heart.
Stay tuned for the part 2 in this series, and sign up for the Now on Wesconnect alumni newsletter.
Images: c/o Jim Kates
Share this link: wesconnect.wesleyan.edu/news-20140827-jim-kates
Don't have a Facebook, but want to comment? Email us.